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Think Tank: Jefferson's two families

Issues of proof, perhaps race, bar Hemingses from Monticello

Sunday, May 19, 2002

By Lynda Guydon Taylor, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As the president of the Monticello Association remarked, talk of the affair between Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress Sally Hemings is nothing new. Neither is the Jefferson clan's cold shoulder toward Hemings family members.

James J. Truscott, descended from the president on his mother's side, spoke shortly before the family voted May 5 to reject the Hemingses who sought membership in the association.

Hoping to kill the claim once and for all, the association voted 74-6 to exclude the Hemingses from the 700-member group.

But debate about the affair is likely to linger.

Think Tank's multicultural group addressed the topic and discussed whether the association should have embraced Hemings descendants and thereby acknowledged the affair. The panelists are Jason Chase, a Washington and Jefferson College sophomore, and retirees Bill Keene of Washington and Bill Brna of Carroll.

Keene believes membership should have been opened to the Hemings family, giving them all the privileges that would entail. He also thinks it's regrettable the matter had to be decided by vote and should have been resolved by consensus.

But the bigger issue, as he sees it, is the right to be buried at Monticello. As a result of the vote, Hemings descendants cannot be buried at Jefferson's home.

Keene also wondered who's to say the claim of the 700 who trace their relationship through Jefferson's daughters is legitimate. It all boils down to whites not wanting to acknowledge kinship with blacks.

"I do believe that is a part of it. I just believe they didn't want any blacks within that organization. They wanted it to be lily white," he said.

That was evident from a scenario when, Keene said, a Hemings family member approached a Jefferson at a meeting at Monticello. The elderly woman who was approached turned her back on the Hemings man.

While Keene said the association ought to accept the Hemings descendants, Brna said, as a private organization, "They have the right to include or exclude anybody they want."

Furthermore, he said, the DNA evidence released in 1998 is inconclusive, because it allows that Jefferson's brother may have fathered Sally Hemings' children.

Chase agreed that, as a private entity, the association is free to ban whomever it wants. He also said he'd like to see stronger evidence proving Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings' children.

Brna maintained the whole issue is a tempest in a teapot brought to the public's attention when James Callender, a reporter and onetime Jefferson friend-turned-enemy, wrote about it.

"I think part of the situation as it relates to today is that a lot of the people who are in that organization are Southerners and, as a result, I still think they keep some lingering prejudices," Brna said.

Keene said he'd heard talk of forming a separate organization of Hemings relatives, who could be buried among the slaves at Monticello. But what good is that, he asked?

"Are they going to have separate water fountains, too?" Chase asked sarcastically.

Like other observers of Jefferson, a drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Keene sees a hypocrite who had a black mistress on the one hand and opposed the mixing of the races on the other hand. While defending individual liberty, he also owned slaves. The divergent views are difficult to reconcile.

Still, in light of what he knows, Keene said, "if somebody asked me, 'Bill, do you actually believe that he fathered those children?' my answer would be 'I don't know.'"

On the other hand, Keene finds it curious in light of news reports at the time that Jefferson never denied the relationship.

As far as the Hemingses are concerned, Keene said, it's useless to pursue anything more with the association. He believes it's best that they drop the issue.

"What are they getting out of it?" he asked.

Chase, too, seemed to think it pointless.

"I don't know what the benefits to joining that association are. I do know that if they are members of that family and they are not being recognized, that's a continuing injustice," he said. "If the family were to organize something like a protest of Jefferson's name or his house -- things like that -- I think that would [make an issue of] the injustice and try to correct that."

Releated story: Hemings descendants plans separate Jefferson reunion

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